: “A US officer said: ‘All we’ve succeeded in doing is paying off the mujahideen to stop shooting at us. There’s a cauldron of hate out there and its going to boil over.’

The town is currently a no-go area for US troops, and by extension, any westerner. Despite lucrative rebuilding contracts, none has entered the city since four contractors were killed and their bodies mutilated in March, prompting the American incursion.

I was driven into Fallujah with black curtains drawn around the rear seat of the car, the only way for a foreigner to enter. As soon as we passed the final US-supervised checkpoint a few miles from town centre I hid my face.

My escort, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which negotiated the peace deal with the marines, warned me that he would not be able to guarantee my safety if I set foot outside the car.

The reason for such caution was obvious. Brown-shirted members of the Fallujah Brigade, most of them former resistance fighters, manned checkpoints across the city. The few residents who agreed to talk were hastily smuggled into the back of the car.

‘Welcome to the free republic of Fallujah,’ said one resident, who would not give his name. ‘We run this city now and no American will ever enter here again.’

A look of horror passed over the face of another man when he saw a westerner in the back of the car. ‘What are you doing here? I will be killed if I am seen with you. You must leave. Get out!’ he said.”

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